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On the Fallacy of ‘Engaging’ with the Israeli Academy

A standard argument against BDS – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli occupation – and especially the academic boycott- has been the “‘need to engage” with Israelis. In fact, during the 46 years of the occupation, numerous efforts to ‘engage’ have been made repeatedly, all of which are warmly embraced by Israel and its academic institutions.

The most recent example is an “International Oral History” conference being organized by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, featuring renowned Italian oral historian Alessandro Portelli. The conference topics included trauma studies, holocaust studies and conflict studies and assiduously avoiding any reference to the Nakba.

Such typical elision has become an iconic political battle-zone between the supporters of Palestinian rights and pro-Israelis, who promote ‘dialogue’ and ‘engagement’; Nor is it surprising that the Hebrew University avoids the topic, given its own complicity in the ongoing Palestinian trauma. The recently passed Nakba Law in Israel bans even the commemoration of the Nakba, so this avoidance is part of a larger project of Israeli denial.

Private efforts to dissuade the two scheduled speakers failed, and it became clear that they firmly subscribed to the value of ‘engagement,” even with an institution like Hebrew University whose complicity in the violation of Palestinian rights and international law we fully documented. Following this exchange, the original webpage for the conference was replaced, and an elliptical reference seemed to open the door for some discussion of the unmentioned Nakba.

The issues involved in this planned conference go beyond the ill-informed and misguided participation of the featured speakers; A public call to boycott the conference signed by 72 international academics was issued in August. Now, in just over a month, there are more than 250 signatories, of whom one third are oral historians from 19 countries, including South Africa, Brazil, Spain and India.

Because the further discussion of boycott was shut off on the US listserv where the conference was initially announced, a message posted by the conference organizer was the last substantive comment on the issue.  In it, she claims boycotting the Hebrew University “only serves as a disservice to many individuals, organizations and communities who dedicate their professional and personal life to finding a just resolution to the conflict.” [i] Thus, the argument for “engagement” was permissible, but the US academic community was denied access to the compelling evidence for boycott. In effect, they were given a response to a question not yet publicly debated.

The dispute playing out among academics, and the timidity of those in the US compared to other internationals, is not new. Furthermore, it represents a conflict that goes much deeper, touching on the very question of “engagement”.

The Folly of Engagment

Academics have been going to conferences in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, for five long decades of occupation, engaging with their Israeli counterparts. It’s bad enough that these engagements have resulted in nothing positive, but to make matters worse, they have become part and parcel of Israeli political strategy: more engagement, discussions, meetings, negotiations between the sides ad infinitum. The current phase of such fruitless exercises recently initiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry will  likely join the others in the dustbin of history

Worse yet, under the guise of continuing discussions and negotiations – a delaying tactic developed by PM Shamir in the 1980s – Israel has managed to add 700,000 illegal settlers in the Occupied Territories of Palestine and Syria. This is almost the number of Palestinian refugees who were forcibly driven out of Palestine in 1948 by the Israeli forces and never allowed back, despite numerous UN resolutions.

In over six decades of its existence, Israel has defied the UN on the most crucial resolutions passed on the rights of the Palestinians; it illegally settled the territories it occupied; it defied the Geneva Convention on numerous counts, including its failure to look after the population under occupation. Among other things, it has refused to grant Palestinian universities a license to operate, and closed the exiting institutions for long periods.  During this time, not once did Israeli faculty unions or the university senates call for reopening of Palestinian universities, or for the restitution of academic freedom in Palestine. Israeli universities have themselves been directly complicit in Israel’s violation of Palestinian human rights and international laws, and all have collaborated in some way with the military occupation, including assisting the military-security-industrial complex.[ii]  In the case of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, its Mt. Scopus campus was expanded onto illegally occupied and confiscated land.

Yet, in contrast to South African apartheid, most academics throughout the world remained silent for years, mounting little opposition to Israel’s crimes. Only in 2005, following the PACBI call for an academic boycott, did the BDS and academic boycott campaign start in earnest in the UK.  Since then, BRICUP (British Committee for Universities in Palestine) has been involved in numerous successful actions, including the recent withdrawal of leading physicist Stephen Hawking from the Presidential conference of 2013 – an action that galvanized scientists and academics elsewhere[iii].

Four years after the founding of BRICUP, and in response to Operation Cast Lead, campaigns in both the US (USACBI) and France (AURDIP) were initiated. [iv] While short of the success of Hawking’s repudiation, both campaigns have been very active. In the US, perhaps the most significant success on the academic front was the passage of an academic boycott resolution at the Asian American Studies Conference in May 2013. AURDIP, while being severely hampered by the repressive policies initiated by Sarkozy, fully applied under Holland, remains an important clearinghouse on the academic boycott, regularly using public events showcasing cooperation between French and Israeli academic institutions as a platform to promote BDS.

Today, there are active boycott campaigns in Spain (PBAI), Berlin (BAB) and India (IncACBI), all of which were initiated in 2010[v], and in Ireland – AFP (Academics for Palestine) was created in 2012[vi]. Perhaps the most important development was the development of a BDS movement inside Israel – Boycott from Within. Recently, these boycott campaigns have garnered increasing support, often from some of the most notable scholars in their countries, like Josep Fontana, the prestigious Spanish (Catalan) historian. The boycott groups in Spain, India and the US are currently organizing against partnerships being forged with Israel’s Technion.  Even in Germany, where any criticism of Israel is highly suspect, the BAB is challenging a funded cooperation agreement between the Free University and the Hebrew University.

Quite obviously, the message is spreading, gradually penetrating academic institutions everywhere. In response, Israel and the Zionist movement have devoted tremendous efforts to counter the boycott campaign, funded by government Ministries. The long-term policy that was devised initially prioritized the UK. A number of Israeli task forces drawn from Israeli universities, arrived in Britain to ‘explain’ the need for ‘engagement’ and ‘dialogue’. The same professors who for years disengaged from any support of the human and civic rights of Palestinians, including their right to education, were now globe-trotting in support of the ‘real victim’ – Israel – promoting ‘engagement’ with the occupation forces under the banner of dialogue. The latest, but surely not last iteration, is the government campaign to use Israel’s students against the boycott. Recent revelations exposed the creation of covert units at Israeli universities, designed to work with the Israeli National Student Union, using social media.

Whatever else one might think about Israeli universities, they could never be accused of being liberal or supportive of human rights. A few months before the Gaza incursion in December 2008, a petition for academic freedom in the Occupied Territories was circulated to over 10,000 Israeli academics. This mild petition, merely requesting the government to allow Palestinians the same freedom enjoyed by Israeli academics, was signed by only 407 Israeli academics – 4% of the total.  The Academic Staff unions in Israel never even discussed or acted on the matter. Although Tel Aviv University is by far the most ‘liberal’ of all, with 155 faculty signing the said petition, in 2012, Shlomo Sand felt compelled to castigate his colleagues in the history department for concealing the problematic history of their own university, built on the former Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanis[vii].

Israeli academics continually ignore calls of Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel’s agressive occupation, arguing instead for  ‘dialogue’ with Israeli colleagues. In fact, the Hebrew University conference is promoted as a “participatory site in which ‘difficult dialogues’ on memory and perspectives will be discussed.”  As usual, instead of promoting dialogue with Palestinian academics, the best that the conference organizers can muster is a reference to “the issues that this country and region face.” One wonders – is the occupation such an issue?

What could possibly be wrong with dialogue, you might ask? Instead, perhaps the appropriate question might be: “is it moral to collaborate with a militarized, racist, colonial state, in order to cleanse its crimes?” Doesn’t this mean that crimes continue and newer ones are perpetrated? Indeed, evidence clearly demonstrates that continuing ‘engagements’ have not led to resolution, but instead served to numb the sensibilities of international academia to the realities of occupied Palestine. In the case of South Africa, it was clear to all academics that there was no way to ‘engage’ with apartheid by speaking to its representatives; the only way to deal with apartheid was to oppose it – to boycott, divest and apply sanctions; to deny South African institutions any support and dialogue; and to follow the advice of the ANC.

Though not yet on the same scale as the South African campaign, the BDS campaign has been successful. Many academics worldwide are now sensitized to becoming complicit in Israel’s illegal occupation, its settler-colonial policies and its apartheid practices and have stopped participating with Israeli institutions. The campaign to boycott the Hebrew University “international” oral history conference is part of the growing world wide effort to honor the Palestinian call for an academic boycott of Israel.

Because so many oral historians view their work as a means of giving voice to the oppressed and silenced, boycotting this conference should be a no-brainer. Indeed, for the internationally-minded oral historians, it is just that, even as so many US practitioners have basically buried their heads in the sand, following their government’s lead.

We wonder what the two advocates of engagement solicited for keynotes will do, and especially how the Hebrew University will respond. Will it, for instance, throw generous travel stipends to participants, rendering them party to the Israeli propaganda machine? We hope, instead, that oral historians around the world will heed the call not to cross the Palestinian picket line, thereby honoring the basic ethical/moral foundation of the historian’s work. [viii]

Haim Bresheeth and Sherna Berger Gluck are part of an international group that initiated this  boycott campaign and which includes Sami Hermez, Nur Masalha, Ilan Pappe, Rosemary Sayigh and Lisa Taraki, among others. Bresheeth is Professor of Film Studies at SOAS London and active in BRICUP; Gluck is Director Emerita of the Oral History Program at California University, Long Beach and one of the founders of the US Academic and Cultural Boycott Campaign of Israel

Notes.


[ii] Keller, U. (2009) the Academic Boycott of Israel and the Complicity of Israeli Academic Institutions in Occupation of Palestinian Territories. The Economy of the Occupation: A Socioeconomic Bulletin: Alternative InformationCentre. http://www.alternativenews.org/images/stories/downloads/Economy ofthe_occupation_23-24.pdf

[iv]  AURDIP – Association Universitaire pour le Respect du Droit International en Palestine

[v] PABI – La Plataforma para el Boicot Académico a Israel; BAB – Berlin AB; InCACBI – Indian Campaign ACBI

[vi] Started with the successful passage on November 9th, 2012, of an Academic Boycott motion at the academic union TUI (Teachers Union of Ireland),  in early 2013, see “TUI Dublin Colleges Branch AGM passes motions in support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions; recognises Israel’s apartheid nature”

[vii] Sand, S in concluding chapter of  The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland, Verso, London, (2012) pp. 259-281

[viii]  The letter in English, French, Portugese and Spanish can be accessed at: http://www.aurdip.org/Call-to-Boycott-the-Oral-History.html and usacbi.org

 

This is not a general petition but is intended as an open letter to international academics and oral historians. If you fit this bill, please send your relevant information to: hebrewUconferenceboycott@gmail.com

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